Growing healthy kids with Yoga, Pilates and natural nutrition

Photo: iStockphoto.com/CEFutcher
Ideas for happy, healthy children

We all want our children to grow up happy and healthy. So it is truly frightening to discover that childhood obesity, attention deficit, hyperactivity and anxiety disorders are all on the rise in North America. However, if we introduce naturally nutritious foods and mindful exercise like Yoga and Pilates to kids as early as possible, we can start to reverse these trends.

KID FRIENDLY YOGA AND PILATES

Yoga and Pilates are usually associated with adult fitness. However, more studies are showing that these mind-body fitness modalities can help children grow and develop into strong, healthy, and centered adults. Bad posture, shallow breathing and muscle tightness are not a natural state of being. Kids today spend an inordinate amount of time slouched at their computers, video games, television and on cell phones, forgetting healthy ways of moving and breathing. They also face increasing pressures in school to perform and fit in.

Yoga and Pilates, with their emphasis on non-competition, breathing, strength, flexibility, balance, control and poise are perfect antidotes for an overweight, stressed out youth.

I recently sat in on a yoga class for four to six-year-olds with Sherry LeBlanc, Director of Yoga 4 Kids. Sherry has been involved with yoga for over 25 years. She loves to teach kids yoga and it shows in her class. The children were a delight to watch as they chanted, breathed and moved into a variety of poses.

LeBlanc explains that “yoga adapted for children inspires their imaginations to learn about nature and their environment. Bunnies hopping, frogs leaping, crabs dancing, herds of elephants marching – all of these develop body awareness, language, good listening skills, cooperation and powers of observation.” All were amply demonstrated in the class I observed.

Michaela Crawford, author of The Girl’s Yoga Book and teacher at the Esther Myers’ Yoga Studio, believes that kids “need and enjoy a diversity of activities and classes because children should have a playful spirit.” She says that in her classes there is usually lots of laughing, talking and spontaneity. Her goal is “to eliminate competition as much as possible.” She goes on to suggest that kids “respond amazingly well to chanting and breathing exercises that involve sound.” She always completes a practice with children chanting AUM. “They love it and it is simply amazing to watch the power of that sound change the mood in the room. Watching them settle down during shavasana, or feeling the peace in the room after a breathing exercise, is when I realize the power that this practice has not only to strengthen their bodies, but to bring about emotional and mental changes too.”

According to author and Pilates instructor Colleen Craig, a Pilates approach to ball work can be used to educate kids about their bodies. In her best selling book, Strength Training on the Ball, Craig includes an excellent chapter directed at children, pointing out that with Pilates-inspired exercises on a ball kids can learn firsthand how “bad posture rounds the back, compresses the lungs, and causes their deep spinal muscles to become weak.” Playing with balls stimulates the brain in a way that is important for growth. Bouncing on the ball can become a fun low impact aerobic workout. If a child rests on the ball and uses their hands or feet they are bearing weight on their bones which helps them to both strengthen and grow.

Moira Merrithew, the Executive Director of Education and co-founder (along with Lindsay G. Merrithew) of Stott Pilates, believes Pilates is a “fun workout for kids that increases children’s coordination and awareness levels, helps to strengthen joints as well as the core, and this strengthening can aid in other physical activities. Additionally, it helps to develop focus and concentration.”

GETTING STARTED

Before beginning any physical activity, whether child or adult, it is always wise to check with your doctor first. In addition, before you enroll your child in a yoga or Pilates class, you should know what’s involved in the program, make sure that the instructor is qualified to actually teach children, not just adults; and that you meet with the teacher or observe a class to determine whether your child will feel comfortable. Moira Merrithew advises parents to note if the instructor uses “easy and clear cues, whether they get too detailed with anatomy or complex images that won't make sense to a child, and work at the age of the child, being aware of their attention span and their ability to learn new things.” The bottom line is that Pilates or yoga for children should be fun and not beyond their capabilities.

Ellen Schwartz, in I Love Yoga, provides a number of tips for a safe and successful yoga practice for kids and teens. These tips can be applied to a Pilates practice:

1. You can do yoga just about anywhere, but the ideal place is an airy room, and if possible a quiet place where you can concentrate without distractions.

2. It’s best to do yoga on an empty stomach; two to four hours after a big meal, one to two hours after a light snack.

3. Do yoga barefoot. Wear comfortable loose or stretchy clothes.

4. Keep your movements smooth and slow and breathe slowly through your nose. Fill and empty your lungs completely, but don’t force your breath in and out, and don’t hold your breath.

5. Be alert and attentive.

6. Take sips of water during the session and be sure to drink a glass of water at the end.

7. Remember that yoga is not competitive; don’t compare yourself with others, or strain or push yourself to be like someone else. Just go at your own pace.

8. Be patient with yourself and don’t expect to master every pose or to be strong and flexible right away. Progress comes gradually.

BENEFITS

Ava, age six, says yoga is quiet and she cannot get hurt. Carly, age nine, likes yoga because it is “relaxing and fun” and she can do it with her friends. Madeleine, at 12, also thinks yoga is relaxing and she finds her “inner peace” in every yoga class. And Chloe thinks Pilates is “cool because you are stretching and it feels good.” This is just a small sampling of what kids have to say about the positive benefits of yoga. And the grown-up experts agree. Both yoga and Pilates give children a better understanding of how their bodies work, and help build self-esteem and confidence. Both help kids focus and dedicate themselves to the task at hand. Yoga and Pilates build strength, improve flexibility, coordination, and balance, as well as help prevent injury.

A number of studies have also indicated that many special needs kids (Autism, ADD/ADHD, and Down’s syndrome) gain valuable coping and concentration skills through the practice of yoga and Pilates. With their emphasis on correct breathing and posture both modalities can help “hyperactive kids become calm and focused; while dull and sluggish states of mind can be transformed into vibrant alertness.” (Mark Singleton – Yoga for You and Your Child)

A KIDS YOGA SAMPLER

Sherry LeBlanc recommends “The Kneeling Sun Salutation” as a good starting point to introduce yoga to children. It is “a series of six poses that can be taught to children as young as four years old. It is a good warm up; it develops a yoga vocabulary, and the skill to memorize a movement pattern.”

1. Rock Pose: Sit on feet with the palms of the hands resting on the thighs.

2. Giraffe Pose: Bring together the tips of thumbs and index fingers to make a triangle. Rise on to the knees, reach up with the arms and look through the space created by your fingers and thumbs. The arms look like the long neck of a giraffe.

3. Child’s Pose: Sit down on heels and rest forehead on the floor with arms by your side or stretched out along the floor over head.

4. Cow Pose:
Come on to hands and knees. Knees are hip width and hands are shoulder width apart. Arch your spine.

5. Dog Pose: Curl toes under and push with hands and feet as you lift hips making a triangular shape with arms, legs and torso. Look at your toes and gently press heels down towards the floor.

6. Puppy Pose: Lower hips and balance on balls of the feet and the hands. You may have to move your hands forward a little. The knees are off the floor. Press through the heels to stretch the legs and hips. Open your mouth, stick out the tongue and pant like a happy puppy.

For an introductory look at children’s Pilates you may want to pick up a copy of Fitness Fun – Pilates for Kids, a Stott Pilates (Merrithew Entertainment) DVD.

 

MINDFUL FOODS FOR BACK TO SCHOOL

We know exercise is only half the story when it comes to a healthy lifestyle. What we put in our bodies is as important as the energy we output. This is even more significant for children. As parenting expert Dr. Sally Goldberg points out, “Your child’s taste buds develop at birth . . . so the foods you feed them in the early years will influence them forever.” But even if you feel your kids are already hooked on junk food, parents should not despair; healthy eating is a learning process and kids love to learn.

Melissa Piccinin, Registered Nutritional Consulting Practitioner and teacher at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition, offers some helpful tips for parents with kids heading back to school in September: “Children need a good start every morning. Put aside the sugar laden, colourful cereals that will only make them hungry in an hour’s time. Instead, cook them a hot grain cereal such as quinoa, oats, brown rice or amaranth. These grains are high in protein, contain more calcium than milk, have iron, the B vitamins and Vitamin E. They are also slow digesting, keeping your little one’s tummy busy longer so that they can focus on their lessons.”

She recommends that lunch include something like an egg or tuna salad on multi-grain bread with sugar-free organic yogurt. The beverage should be pure filtered water or a small amount of pure apple or orange juice. “Eliminate soft drinks as young bones are still developing and soft drinks will rob them of precious calcium. They also contain an abundance of sugar. Approximately one tablespoon of sugar suppresses the immune system for four hours, allowing viruses the opportunity to invade the body. One can of pop contains approximately 15 teaspoons of sugar.”

MINI MENU AS SUGGESTED BY MELISSA PICCININ

Breakfast:

Whole grain waffles [can be prepared ahead of time and frozen] with Agave syrup and fresh fruit on top
Fruit juice or soy milk

Lunch:

Whole grain pita stuffed with child's favourite veggies, lettuce, and white chicken or turkey meat (if vegetarian, then lots of veggies)
Sliced veggies and yogurt dip
Piece of fruit
Water

NUTRITION AIDS LEARNING AND BEHAVIOUR

Piccinin stresses that the goal of the lunch meal during the school year should be “to keep the blood sugar level of the child steady throughout the afternoon for better learning and a sharper focus. We want children who sit in their seats, pay attention and behave in an appropriate manner. We can only attain this by eliminating sugary snacks, soft drinks and empty calorie foods. Instead, our children need good, nutrient dense foods for proper brain development and body nourishment.”

As exercise has been shown to help special needs kids get calm and focused, so too have dietary changes been revealed to significantly aid behaviourally challenged children. Irene Wells Swedak, B.Sc, RNCP, and teacher at the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition believes that disorders like ADD and ADHD “should be labeled as an imbalance – an imbalance brought about by either excesses or deficiencies of toxins and/or nutrients for that individual.” Swedak suggests that for parents of children facing these challenges the first step is to change how they eat, focusing on quality (home cooked meals are best), and on the digestive, intestinal and nervous systems when trying to rectify these imbalances in the body. Swedak believes a whole foods diet that includes the following can heal the body and the mind:

Maximize green foods: 5-6 servings daily; 1 serving = ½ cup cooked, or 1 cup raw.
Choose foods from each of the following categories:

• High water content vegetables, salads. Get creative. Choose a dark green leafy (kale, rapini, collards, spinach, Chinese greens, swiss chard) & orange veggie at each meal. For snacks, serve dips with pureed roasted veggies like red peppers, egg-plant, or onions. Add jicama, cucumber or bell pepper crudités for variety... not just celery & carrots! Wrap nori (seaweed) around cucumber wedges. Try different lettuces – endive, frisee, radicchio, romaine. You decide what to buy – and let your child decide how and what to eat, with your guidance.
• Steamed cruciferous veggies: broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbages
• Carrots, yams, beets, squashes, potatoes…make GREAT root fries!
• Fresh vegetable juices

Maximize high protein and protein alternatives 3-4 servings daily from the following categories:

• Meat – poultry, red meat, wild meat (3 ounces = 1 serving)
• Soy foods: great for stir fry: tofu, tempeh.
• Beans (3/4 cup cooked = 1 serving)
• Eggs (1 large = 1 serving)
• Fish – cold water, wild, ocean fish: Haddock, Salmon, Mackerel, Tilapia (3 oz = 1 serving)
• Other high protein foods include raw nuts and seeds and their butters: walnuts, hazelnuts, cashews, pumpkin, sunflower. One serving is ¼ cup, or a small handful, or 2 tbsp. of nut butter. Although nuts and seeds are high in fat, it is mostly good, unsaturated, essential fat (see below). Peanuts are actually very high in protein, high in saturated (undesirable fat) and low in essential fats.

Protein, like fat, helps satisfy hunger, and aids mineral absorption. When meals are satisfying…cravings don’t occur! Have crudités available with bean dips, eggs, or salmon/tuna or tofu salads, sliced meat (poultry, turkey, lamb) or kabobs on a stick.

Fats – only healthy essential fats, are crucial: 3 servings/day. (1 tsp = 1 serving). Omega-3 fats, found in cold water ocean fish, flax seed oil, walnuts, wild meat, and mono-unsaturated fats (olives & avocados), are essential for nervous system health, and circulatory health, respectively. Unrefined olive, coconut and sesame oils are for best for cooking or baking. A mixture of butter and flax oil (3/4: ¼ ratio) is a great spread for bread or sandwiches. Add flax oil to smoothies.

Favour unrefined and organic sunflower or hempseed or flax oil for salads.

Whole grains: 5-6 servings/day, possibly more if the child is athletic. 1 serving = 1 slice of bread, ½ cup cooked cereal, ¾ cup cold cereal, ½ cup cooked rice or other grain or ½ cup cooked pasta. Whole grains provide energy, fibre, essential B-vitamins, oils, minerals and essential trace minerals. It is crucial to combine whole grains with protein to prevent peaks and drops in blood sugar. This is especially important for ADHD.

Choose from long grain brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, oats , barley, buckwheat, millet, spelt, kamut, rye. Choose cookies made with whole grains, nuts, seeds, and eggs. Whole wheat or multi-grain pitas.

Calcium-rich foods: 4 servings/day (1 serving = 1 cup milk,1 cup milk alternative, ¾ cup yogurt, 2 oz cheese, ¼ cup almonds, 2 tbsp tahini, 1 cup cooked broccoli or other dark green vegetable, or ½ cup fortified orange juice, or fortified soy food).

Although many people still insist that milk is the “perfect food”, it is actually not digested very well by most people, and is on the list of Canada’s most allergenic foods. It tends to prolong congestion and ear infections in susceptible individuals, especially children. I recommend using milk alternatives or calcium supplements to achieve the recommended intake.

Moderate the intake of fruits (2-3 servings per day):

• Fruits (only organic): Pineapple, pear, papaya, melons, starfruit, mangos. Choose seasonal fruit.
• Herbal teas – mix with agave nectar or maple syrup.
• Natural, live cultured yogurt or kefir – in smoothies or mixed with fruit & topped with whole grain cereals.

WATER: pure spring or glacial water only.

Certain fresh herbs, low in salicylates may be used for seasonings

Avoid:

• White flour pasta, breads, desserts, granola bars, anything made with “wheat flour”
• Non-organic milk, cheese, and dairy foods.
• Red meat that is non-organic
• Peanuts
• Corn, unless whole grain & organic, as in polenta: O.K.
• Dried fruits (because of moulds, sulphites, colourings, sugar)

Eliminate:

• Hydrogenated oils, trans fats, margarines, & foods made with them
• Caffeinated beverages & pop
• Fruit juices (use only as a sweetener or in desserts)
• Take out foods (most) & those made with cream sauces especially, and fried foods
• Ice cream (Substitute frozen yogurt – add fruit and other toppings)
• Processed meats
• Table salt, white sugar & sweeteners: glucose, high fructose corn syrup, malt.

If our children are going to have a healthy, active and long life, we as parents will want to make sure their bodies and minds are properly nourished with nutrient dense whole foods, and that they learn to breathe and move in healthy ways with exercise programs like yoga and Pilates. The benefits of providing a healthy childhood will last their whole lives.

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